It’s been a hot summer in Arizona, but there were a lot of private prison corporate executives whose pants were on fire over the past two weeks. On the plus side, our crop yields will set records this year due to the amount of b.s. that we just got showered with.
Over the past two weeks, the Arizona Dept. of Corrections (ADC) conducted public hearings on proposed private prisons in 5 Arizona towns: Eloy, Goodyear, Winslow, San Luis/Yuma, and Coolidge. At each hearing, the ADC gave a presentation on the bidding process, the Corporation gave a (sometimes quite lengthy) presentation on how awesome they think they are, and members of the public got 5 minutes apiece to raise concerns, ask questions, or, in many cases, beg them for jobs.
In their efforts to win a multi-million dollar contract, the corporations—CCA, GEO Group, MTC, and LaSalle—told some real whoppers. Here are our favorites, plus the truth that they are trying to hide.
Lie # 10: “No immigrant prisoners have died in CCA’s Eloy Detention Center.”
When asked about an ACLU investigation that revealed the Eloy Detention Center had the most inmate deaths of any detention center in the US, CCA’s talking head said it just never happened.
But records from the US Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement prove that nine immigrants have died while in custody at Eloy since 2003, two more than reported at any other facility. The deaths were only discovered because of an ACLU lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act asking for a comprehensive list of deaths in 2007. In April, the Department of Homeland Security released a list of 90 individuals who died while in custody.
Just because CCA tried to cover the deaths up doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.
Lie # 9: “Jobs, jobs, jobs.”
At all the hearings, the sales pitch was the same: This prison will create umpteen construction jobs and kazillions of guard jobs. The corporations are manipulating the financial distress of rural Arizona towns to get themselves a multi-million dollar contract. So, what will the people of the next Arizona Prison Town get?
Well, they’ll get a few jobs, but not nearly the number they were promised. Here’s why:
- Private prison corporations are based in other states. They are huge companies and bring in their own architects and construction companies. They usually have relationships with distributors, and because buying in bulk is cheaper, they will go with those companies over local ones. They will tell you that they will “try” to use as many local vendors “as possible,” but then they will determine that those local vendors are not competitive in their pricing or cannot handle the volume and they will go with the ones that they usually use.
- These towns are tapped out. Every one of them already has at least one prison or a prison nearby. Eloy has several. Pinal County, where Eloy and Coolidge are located, has 6 CCA prisons, two entire state prison complexes (with about 5 units each), a few federal detention centers, and a county jail that also rents out space to CCA.
- The private prisons can’t keep people in the jobs they have now. The Arizona Republic has reported that, “This year, through the end of June, the state has withheld about $844,000 from Kingman, $54,000 from Marana (also operated by MTC) and about $6,000 from Geo Group’s Phoenix West and Florence West prisons for failing to fill vacant positions quickly enough.”
Obviously, working in a prison isn’t for everyone. These are difficult jobs, with long hours, and stressful conditions. One corrections officer described it as “long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.” Not every unemployed person in this town is going to want to work in the prison. Or they will get a job there and quit shortly after.
Oh, and here’s another interesting twist: The Yuma Sun recently reported that Bullhead City has reached a deal with the Arizona Department of Corrections and Management and Training Corporation for inmates from the Arizona State Prison in Kingman to perform park and street maintenance work in the city. That’s right: Instead of creating jobs, they are tossing Bullhead City residents out of these low wage jobs and replacing them with prison labor. How many jobs will be lost there? How many other towns will follow suit?
Lie #8: “The prison will bring economic development to your town.”
Decades worth of research proves that prisons are not good economic growth for towns.
- In states with at least one private prison as of 1990, prisons have been shown to reduce the number of jobs overall in a community. You might get prison jobs, but you won’t get other kinds of jobs that pay better.
- Private prisons pay less, which means that state prisons have to compete, driving wages down for everyone.
- As mentioned previously, relatively few corrections officers live in the same town as the prison where they work, which means they spend their money somewhere else. One study estimates that up to two-thirds of potential tax revenues and other economic benefits leave the host community in this way.
- Having a prison nearby is not a draw for other kinds of businesses, and in many cases will scare them away. Who wants to build a housing development or school near a prison? Many Arizona towns are cultivating tourism due to historic landmarks and buildings, natural beauty, or scenery—what happens when you plop a huge prison with hundreds of feet of razor wire down in the middle of a historic area or pristine natural landscape?
One need go no further than Florence, AZ to see the true economic impacts of being a prison town. You can bet they heard the exact same sales pitch when those prisons were proposed. Where is the economic boom they were promised? Where are the stores? The industry? The housing developments? If prisons are so great for local economies, why doesn’t Florence have a thriving downtown?
The bottom line is, once you have prisons, all you will ever have is prisons.
One final note: Several residents noted during the hearings that Arizona is in a very sorry state when the only type of economic development offered to people is from an industry that is so harmful to our communities in so many ways. One retired firefighter at the Goodyear hearing put it this way: “Our fire station budget was cut and many firefighters were laid off. But we don’t go around saying, ‘we need more fires.’”
Lie #7: “We’ve learned from our mistakes.”
You gotta hand it to them—it takes some serious moxie to tell people that, because of your company’s gross negligence resulting in two deaths, your prisons are now the safest in the state. Especially when we know that MTC dragged its feet on fixing the problems at Kingman and only got its act together when the state stopped paying them.
A security audit of Arizona’s private prisons completed after the escapes reveals that the problems at Kingman are endemic to all private prisons in the state. Here’s what it found:
“At the three Geo prisons – Florence West, Phoenix West and the Central Arizona Correctional Facility – Corrections Department inspectors found such issues as inmates having access to a control panel that could open emergency exits; an alarm system that didn’t ring properly when doors were opened or left ajar; and that staff didn’t carry out such basic security practices as searching commissary trucks and drivers, among many other failures.
At MTC’s Marana prison, there were broken monitors, a control-room panel that didn’t work, missing perimeter lights, missing razor wire, missing visitor passes. Marana’s swamp coolers – in August, in Arizona – weren’t working, making it hotter inside the prison buildings than outside.”
You can read the full report, obtained through a public records request by Arizona Republic reporter Bob Ortega, on the Republic website.
Not only did MTC resist making the necessary fixes to Kingman demanded by the Department of Corrections, they threatened to sue us for attempting to hold them accountable. When ADC pulled our prisoners out after the escapes and refused to pay MTC until the security problems were fixed, MTC threatened to sue us for $10 million. Because they have better lawyers and more money than God, we rolled over. We paid this corporation $3 million for empty beds—beds that were empty due to their gross negligence, which resulted in two deaths.
Clearly, this is not a corporation that “learns from its mistakes. It’s a company that is wholly unaccountable for its mistakes.
Lie #6: GEO Group’s contract to run the Cook County juvenile detention center was cancelled because the state wanted to move the facilities from rural to urban areas, NOT because of the rampant abuse of children by GEO’s guards.
Baloney. The New York Times reported that “Juvenile detainees as young as 13 years old slept on filthy mats in dormitories with broken, overflowing toilets and feces smeared on the walls. Denied outside recreation for weeks at a time, they ate bug-infested food, did school work that consisted of little more than crossword puzzles and defecated in bags.”
In response, Texas “has transferred the 197 offenders in Bronte to other institutions, fired seven monitoring officials and canceled an $8 million contract with the GEO Corporation, the prison company in Boca Raton, Fla., that managed the center. The state has also opened a criminal investigation and a review of the adult prisons run by GEO.”
Lie #5: “Our security system is state-of-the-art”
I would bet a large sum of money that this exact same pitch was made to the people of Kingman when that prison was built. They might have fancy technology, but does it work? And if it stops working, will they fix it? See the security audit referenced under Lie #5—broken monitors, control-room panels that don’t work, alarms that don’t ring properly, malfunctioning security cameras. These problems were found in all our private prisons.
Technology is only as good as the people using it. We consistently hear after a riot or escape that a for-profit prison was having “staffing issues.” That pay was low, there was a lack of training, and the guards were inexperienced. Clearly, ADC has gotten wise and is requiring contractors to provide the same training as the state—it’s written into the RFP. But that doesn’t address the turnover problem. Those folks might get trained, but they won’t stick around. That means that a large percentage of the staff is inexperienced and unlikely to know how to handle a dangerous situation. One report stated that 80% of the guards at Kingman were recent hires.
At Kingman, the guards were propping those state-of-the-art security doors open with rocks. They ignored those high-tech alarms when they went off. The ADC monitor was either asleep at the switch or being blown off by Central office. As they say, “you can’t fix stupid.”
Lie #4: “The town is not taking any risks in the financing scheme for the prison”
Prison construction for private facilities is almost always financed through lease revenue bonds. They generally create an “Industrial Development Authority” or “Public Facilities Corporation,” which is essentially a paper tiger created through the city or county. The reason they fund through this mechanism is because they don’t want to take the risk, carry the paper, nor pay the interest.
When industrial revenue bonds are issued, the public is often told that neither the local government nor the taxpayers will be obligated or negatively affected in any way if the project fails. While it’s true that revenue bonds are not a general obligation of the issuer, it is not true that governments and taxpayers will be unaffected by the risks of the project.
The debt is paid off with the money received as per-diem payments for each inmate housed. This looks great on paper, but what happens when there are no inmates?
The savvy businessperson approaches any financing project asking “where is the market?” In this case, the financing for these prisons is dependent on a guaranteed occupancy of state prisoners. Yet the Arizona Auditor General reports that our prison population grew by only 65 prisoners in 2010. And there’s a movement afoot in the state legislature to reduce our prison population as 25+other states have done through sensible reforms to criminal sentencing laws favoring cheaper alternatives like probation, drug treatment, and house arrest.
If there’s no market, then these projects are doomed to fail. And what will happen to the town then? What if the corporation gets a better offer somewhere else and decides to pull out of the contract? What if Arizona’s prison population goes down?
Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what the Director of the Oklahoma DOC said after Arizona pulled its inmates out of a private prison there: He said the private prison industry is a speculative market. “It is not immune to recession and trends in sentencing and crime,” Jones said. “A lot of states have gone back and applied research to their sentencing practices, which results in sentences that are more evidence-based, and that obviously affects a market that relies upon incarceration.”
There are numerous cautionary examples of towns facing default struggling to pay the debt on an empty prison: Hardin, MT is one of the most notable. The town there got so desperate that they actually asked the state to send them sex offenders and lobbied the Obama administration to send Guantanamo detainees. A few weeks ago, the town of Littlefield, TX had to hold a public auction to sell a prison there so that they could pay the debt on the facility after GEO group cancelled its contract and left the town holding the bag.
Even if the town isn’t directly responsible for paying the debt on the prison, a default on the bond can affect the town’s credit rating (kinda like S&P just did to the United States). That can make it difficult for the town to borrow money for other needed projects like new schools or a hospital. Some towns have taken desperate measures to try to pay the debt on a prison in an effort to avoid default, including raising taxes and cutting other critical city budgets. A bond default can also make a city the target of costly litigation, further draining the town’s coffers.
Lie #3: “It’s impossible to measure recidivism from our prisons, because the prisoners may be housed in several different facilities during their incarceration.”—Terry Stewart, former Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections and now consultant for MTC
We asked every one of the companies what their recidivism rate was, and none of them had an answer. Isn’t that convenient? These companies can make claims about how they supposedly are “changing lives” and rehabilitating people, and they don’t even have to prove it.
Probation departments, social service providers and re-entry programs all measure recidivism. They don’t say, “well, this guy is also getting services at the VA and the food bank, so there’s no way to measure the impact of our programs.”
Let’s face it–these corporations know that their recidivism rate won’t be any better than the state’s and probably worse.
What’s more, the Arizona Department of Corrections has all this data, they just won’t go to the trouble to analyze it. They could easily do a comparison between state prisoners who have been housed in private prisons at any point in their incarceration, and those who have only been in state facilities.
Lie #2: “What lawsuits?”
When directly asked whether the company had settled lawsuits over abusive conditions in its juvenile prisons in Michigan and Louisiana, GEO Group representatives hemmed and hawed and refused to answer the question. We consider this the same as lying.
As reported in the Dallas Morning News, GEO not only faced lawsuits over bad conditions, but they actually lost contracts due to their abuses.
The U.S. Justice Department sued the company in 2000, when it was known as Wackenhut Corrections Corp., alleging that juveniles at the company’s Louisiana facility were subjected to excessive abuse and neglect. Wackenhut agreed to a settlement that provided for sweeping changes to Louisiana’s juvenile justice system and required the company to move all juveniles from its facility. The former security chief pleaded guilty in 2001 to beating a 17-year-old handcuffed inmate with a mop handle. In October 2005, Michigan closed the state’s private youth prison run by GEO after an advocacy group sued the prison over inadequate inmate care.
And, rather than accepting responsibility for its actions, the company turned around and sued the state of Michigan for wrongful termination of contract. How’s that for being a “good corporate citizen”?
And the #1 Lie told at the Arizona Hearings: “I’m accountable to you”—George Zoley, CEO of GEO Group
Waaah! Ha! Ha! Good one, George! About 30 seconds after uttering this whopper, Zoley proceeded to tell the crowd that GEO does not even bother to measure recidivism and then refused to disclose how much money he makes. Accountability, indeed.
Fortunately, Frank Smith of Private Corrections Working Group was in attendance and informed the crowd that Zoley made $16 million last year. Zoley’s pay, he pointed out, is a matter of public record. As a follow up, Frank provided us with the exact figures. Zoley’s salary, per companypay.com, was $3,825,433. He made $23 million in stock trades in the last 18 months.
Just a note to the boys at GEO corporate—don’t send Zoley to these things. He creeps people out.